The rise of the new left

Much has been said and written about our divided society, in which there appears to be more tension than ever. The nation is angry, and America’s polarized discourse leaves many Americans rightfully fearing for the future.

Some claim the contemporary ideology underlying this division derives from cultural Marxism, a contentious term that refers to the strategy propounded by new left-wing theorists in the last century to use the institutions of a society’s culture to bring about revolution.

Cultural Marxism had its roots in the political philosophy propounded by far-left thinkers known as the Frankfurt School. Founded in Germany in 1923, the “Institute for Social Research” was the official name for a group of intellectuals who would play an important role in Europe and the U.S. Among their ideas was to dismantle and undermine the totality of a capitalist society.

Fleeing Hitler in the 1930s, these German academics first set up shop at Columbia University in New York City and then, beginning in 1940, in California. They identified popular culture as wielding a pervasive influence that conditioned the masses into acceptance of capitalist society.

From the 1960s onwards, the strategy was to infiltrate and eventually dominate social and cultural institutions, and thereby achieve cultural hegemony. Rather than the class warfare and the plight of workers, which was the focus of classical Marxist thinkers, they concentrated on areas such as racial, ethnic, and gender warfare, and identity politics.

The Frankfurt School’s new-left intellectuals realized that a Soviet-style revolution was not attractive to democratic Western societies and was unlikely to succeed. Conditions for the working class were improving due to trade union representation and an expanding franchise, among other things. Communism held little appeal to the industrial working class in whose name it had been invented.

Rather than expecting workers to seize control of the levers of political and economic life, they believed the way to bring about revolutionary change was to seed radical ideas within core institutions of society such as the media, arts, and universities.

They understood that culture mass produces consent for the West’s political system, and political revolution would be impossible without a cultural revolution. A successful revolution requires not just seizing political and economic power, but also conquest of the culture, broadly defined as everything from art and entertainment to social and sexual norms. The 1960s radical left-wing German student leader Rudi Dutschke described the strategy of capturing society’s commanding heights as the “long march through the institutions.” A cultural revolution to be achieved by using existing institutions, not overthrowing them.

The outcome of the culture war, like all wars, is wholly uncertain. But what is certain is that the late great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was right when he said “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

In plain terms, if you capture culture, politics will surely follow.

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